At the height of his popularity in the 1970s, Bobby Fischer was a household name. What Muhammad Ali was to boxing, Fischer was to chess. His ability inspired thousands to take up the hobby and is widely credited as being one of the finest, if not the finest, chess player ever to have lived.
Bobby Fischer Against The World tells the story of how he rose from a gifted child prodigy who accepted fame reluctantly to a champion who defeated the might of the Russian incumbent Boris Spassky during the Cold War.
He lost the title by default in 1975 because he refused to defend it and later became a recluse only to resurface almost 20 years later to play a rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia – an action which broke UN sanctions and caused the USA to call for his arrest.
Sadly by this point, Fischer had started to go a little funny in the head seeing government conspiracies in everything, becoming a fierce anti-Semite (despite having Jewish roots) and gleefully rejoicing in the atrocities of the 9/11 attacks.
Director Liz Garbus has assembled an impressive array of talking heads including former and current chess champions (Garry Kasparov and Susan Polgar), friends (including Grandmaster Larry Evans and Dr Anthony Saidy at whose house Fischer hid before going to play Spassky), notable photographer Harry Benson and even former Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger.
The archive material is also impressive and includes interviews, home movie footage and some intriguing glimpses of Fischer training for his match with Spassky (he believed that physical training was important as well as mental) along with some beautiful photos by Benson.
Fischer himself is curious man. He’s frequently very funny but sometimes it’s hard to tell if some of the amusing things he says are due to genuine wit or simple eccentricity. Having played the game “seriously” since he was seven, Fischer was asked what he’d like to do now that he’d won the World Championship. He answered “I’d like to play more chess. I feel like I haven’t played enough chess”. He also bears an uncanny and startling resemblance to Nicolas Cage – if he wasn’t such a strange man anyway, you’d keep expecting him to go nuts at any moment.
He’s also frustratingly arrogant and petulantly stubborn, making all kinds of irrational demands of chess officials and frequently showing disgraceful sportsmanship towards his opponents.
Garbus does a great job of keeping the pace high and the tension taut throughout, admirably conveying the nail-biting will-they-won’t-they suspense which had people anxiously waiting for updates on the match on huge screens in Times Square.
Unfortunately there’s very little discussion of why he was such a remarkable player. There are plenty of talking heads asserting his greatness, but no actual demonstrations of how this was the case. While the intricacies of such advanced play would no doubt go over most people’s heads, a visual guide to some of his strategic feats of genius would have been more satisfying.
Nevertheless, Bobby Fischer Against The World is a solid documentary that gives a very good generalised overview of Bobby Fischer and the dangers of obsession, the pressure of fame and the thin line between genius and madness but it offers no new particular insight into the inner workings of the man or the brilliance of his game.